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Can All the Sheikh's Horses and All the Sheikh's Men Put Qatar's Reputation Back Together Again?

Qatar has waged a full-scale charm offensive in Washington, DC to reaffirm its relationship with the US, and repair a reputation marred by allegations of terrorism financing.
Photo via US State Department

Just a week after the White House wrapped up its big Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, just about the entire government of Qatar has arrived in Washington to tell everyone about how they too are completely down with countering the heck out of violent whack jobs.

Mostly, this has involved with meeting with nearly everyone they can imagine. On the US side, this means the president, vice president, the secretaries of defense and the treasury, a couple dozen members of Congress, and who knows all else. On the Qatari side, the charm offensive has involved the first official state visit to the US by Sheikh Tamim (or His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, if you want the fancier handle) who brought along the foreign minister, finance minister, ambassador to the US, and just about every senior Qatari official imaginable. And just for good measure, the Sheikh penned an op-ed for the New York Times, unambiguously entitled "Qatar's Message to Obama"


VICE News got a chance to chat with a Very Senior Unnamed Qatari Official on Very Deep Secret Double Probation background who has some really deep insights into what's going on with this whole episode. This means I can't tell you who it was or what they said. But the long and the short of it is that what the Qataris came to tell DC is, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty much what was in Sheikh Tamim's article.

There's a bit of back story that helps to put this in context.

For some time a lot of folks have been running around telling anyone who will listen that Qatar has troubling tendency to hop into bed with all manner of super shady, extra-unsavory terrorist sorts. Indeed, one article leads off with "It has been dubbed the most two-faced nation in the world…"

The Qataris vehemently deny this. But, as you can imagine, if you've been accused of lying and being shifty, simply denying the charge isn't going to persuade a lot of folks; you'll have to bust out some pretty heavy-duty persuasion. Thus, Qatar's senior government class field trip to Washington.

In his first interview as emir, Sheikh Tamim was asked, flat out, if Qatar funds terrorism. He responded firmly in the negative. Which he then immediately followed with a qualifier that sounded suspiciously like 'for varying values of the term terrorist.'

It's pretty evident to all and sundry that Qatar cannot be counted as inexorably hostile to the US. After all, it hosts an immense US air base that has been used in the delivery of numerous cans of whoop-ass in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. But pretty much any time anyone feels the need to qualify their strong anti-terrorist stance with a discussion on what "terrorism" covers, what Washington hears is, "I think it's about time we had a little chat." Especially if that particular someone happens to host a massive US military presence. So, yes, Washington was probably rather pleased when they heard about the visit of Qatar's senior government officials.


At least a part of the deal with the allegations about supporting terrorists is that Qatar advertises itself as a mediator. They openly state they're willing to talk with just about anyone (except the folks they consider terrorists). Since they have a different definition of who counts as terrorists than the West does, it means that Qatar counts a lot of groups the US definitely considers to be terrorist among its contacts. Keeping in touch definitely counts as links, but it's not clear whether or not links necessarily involve money. So it's a little hard to tell for certain how much of this mediator business ultimately means financing groups the US considers terrorists.

Qatar basically considers all the Islamic State-like, decapitation-happy, apocalyptic nutters to be terrorists. However, while many in the US and elsewhere consider many Islamist groups (i.e. political Islam folks like the Muslim Brotherhood) to be terrorists, the Qataris don't share the West's presumption that Islamist extremists are pretty terrorizing.

Rather, Qatar considers an Islamist group to be a terrorist when they are simply unable to play well with others. That's kind of a low bar; any group that's constitutionally incapable of behaving themselves around the self-appointed mediators of the region is probably not worth friending on Facebook.

Without rehashing specific cases or accusations of financing, it might be safe to guess that when either Qatar denies supporting terrorists — or other countries (such as the UAE) accuse Qatar of supporting terrorists — the statements can be taken at face value; they're just based on different assumptions and definitions.


Related: Why President Obama is a Neocon. Read more here.

Unless, of course, Qatar is really being two-faced and supporting terrorists, an allegation which started this whole ball rolling in the first place. Can all the sheikh's horses and all the sheikh's men put Qatar's reputation back together again?

* * *

So what did Qataris talk about in these confabs? They reiterated the points from the sheikh's NYT op-ed, with some added details, and you can get the details on the specifics from the statements, press releases, and so on. But so you don't have to, please allow me to paraphrase:

Qatar is completely in agreement and on board with the notion that the Islamic State is a complete car wreck and is way too much into trying to out-evil itself. The US is doing a bang-up job of bombing the crap out of the Islamic State, and definitely deserves an "A" for effort there. To be sure, the US is awesome at bombing stuff, which is why that whole Syria redline thing — when the US told Syria to cut it out with the chemical weapons or else, but never delivered up on the "or else"— was an epic mistake. But what's done is done. That said, it's completely insane to think that the US lacks the whoop-ass distribution network to make Assad knock it off with all this barrel bomb butchery. So the US should get on that right away.

Anyhow, yep, the US, Qatar, and everyone is all very into curb-stomping the Islamic State. But everyone knows that sooner or later, this is going to mean a lot of ground troops. And those ground troops have to be Arabs (specifically Arab Sunnis, because former Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki screwed the pooch badly with all his Shia sectarian ethnic purge nonsense). Training opposition groups to fight in Syria is nice and all, but that's maybe a couple thousand guys, tops. Everyone needs to quit fooling around with training dribs and drabs of soldiers and get serious about raising a whole, full-up Arab Sunni army to go kill off the Islamic State.


Related: The new White House National Security Strategy isn't about strategy or national security. Read more here.

Now, if you're going to take out the Islamic State, that basically means Assad has to go, but before anyone starts casting for another Expendables movie, please recognize this isn't a job for ass-kickery alone. Without a lot better post-dictator planning and groundwork this time, we'll just end up turning post-Assad Syria into a rerun of post-Saddam Iraq and nobody wants to see that. If the worst comes to the worst, you'll just end up with the same kind of hellhole that brought us the Islamic State in the first place. The non-explosive, non-army part of making Syria less violently crazy is a political and diplomatic task, and definitely an area where the Arab world really needs to step to the plate.

In terms of post-Assad Syria, the Syrian opposition are reasonable and should be at the table if you want any lasting settlement, but the foreign fighters are going to be nothing but trouble. When rebuilding a post-Assad Syria, people shouldn't forget that not all former regime folks are bad and some of those people are the guys with all the expertise in making the trains run on time and whatnot.

But, lest anyone get hasty, what's good for Syria isn't right for Libya. That's a different situation, different country. Different everything. So nobody should take support for whipping the Islamic State as blanket support for invading Libya to pieces. Once there's a unity government in place in that country, then it's time to talk about beating down whatever Islamic State franchise is operating in Libya, but not until then.


The other big thing worth touching on is Israel, Hamas, Gaza, and all that. Hamas is reasonable and can be worked with. Granted, the US calls them terrorist, but Hamas isn't the craziest dog in that particular junkyard. Not by a long shot. At this point, the big priority for Qatar is getting the Palestinians some funding for infrastructure, rebuilding, and basics like that. After they have that in hand, it'll be possible to get down to business. In the long run, both Palestinians and Israelis are going to have to figure out how to live with each other. And the only way that can happen is at the negotiating table. So even if the US doesn't love Hamas, someone's got to take that seat at the table, and Hamas isn't the worst choice for that.

As to all this terrorist financing business, Qatar is all about putting a stop to that, but if all the US is going to do is complain and not help, then no dice. If and when the US fingers people sending money to terrorist groups, Qatar is happy to put them in jail with a quickness. But without some data and specific accusations, it's just a lot of noise.

* * *

So, that's the takeaway from all this?

Well, the first, big important message is that Qatar is pretty damned serious about not wanting to ruin its relationship with the US. The scarcest commodity for any senior official is attention; they have only so many hours in a day to work with, so a decision to spending time on one topic instead of another is important. A series of high-level meetings like this has to have occupied a huge chunk of bandwidth and attention of just about every senior government person from the emir on down. This suggests that the government there takes its relationship with the US very, very seriously indeed.


Second, the battle between the Qatari and Emirati narratives about Libya have pretty much collapsed. According to the one side, the current struggle is between a popular movement and a former regime loyalists. According to the UAE, it's a battle between terrorist-supporting Islamists versus a democratic movement. The fact Qatar says nobody should do anything until there's a unity government implies that both sides have a legitimate place at the table, means that Qatar credits both sides with legitimacy. This is kind of a longer, different variation on the discussion about who is and who isn't a terrorist, but Washingtonian conventional wisdom seems to be coming around to the Qatari point of view on this.

Third, the Qatari position on terrorist financing isn't necessarily a great deal clearer after this trip. On the one hand, they're saying they're completely clean and if they're missing anything at all, the US should let them know, and they'll lock any bad guys up right away. Which is exactly what Qatar might say if they were completely clean. Unfortunately, it's also exactly what they'd say if they were hip deep into terrorist financing shenanigans and wanted to find out how much we knew. Any resolution on this question is going to have to come out of cooperation between the two intelligence and law enforcement communities and will take time. So the jury is still out on this, but that shouldn't be taken as proof one way or the other.

The final message isn't necessarily one that Qatar meant to send, but is implied in the overall messaging. Since 9/11, it seems like every time a country experiences its first major act of terror, that event is referred to as that country's 9/11. Charlie Hebdo was France's 9/11. The murder of the Japanese hostages was Japan's 9/11. The immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh was Jordan's 9/11. Madrid's bombings, London transport attacks, etc. etc. Basically the term has come to mean any sufficiently shocking terrorism-related event that gets an entire country wound up.

As far as I know, people aren't running around calling the Islamic State the Arab world's 9/11, but the comparison might not be far off. In the US after 9/11, terrorism moved right to the top of everyone's agenda and anything terrorism-related could move mountains of money and effort. While there hasn't (thankfully) been a single, sharp, singular defining atrocity in the Middle East like 9/11, the earnestness of the Qatari messaging about the badness of the Islamic State is reminiscent of post-9/11 counterterrorism discussions in the US.

So whether or not Qatar is supporting terrorism in general, there's little doubt (at least in my mind for the time being) that they're dead set against the Islamic State. Then again, one way or the other, that's exactly what the Qataris want me to think. My question is: How can I know for certain why they want me to think that?

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo by US State Department via Flickr